Mind & Body

Need to Make an Excuse? Don't Say "I Don't Have Time"

Given how slammed everyone says they are these days, you'd think that begging off an invitation by claiming you're too busy would be met with understanding (if not commiseration). But new research suggests you should think twice before using busyness as an excuse. Doing so, the study found, can seriously harm your relationships.

Blame Money, Not Time

Last year, Ohio State University's Grant Donnelly faced a conundrum: a friend was getting married abroad and making the trip was just too much of a stretch. What was the best way to decline the invitation without hurting the friend's feelings?

This situation is instantly familiar to many of us, but Donnelly had an advantage over most people facing similar dilemmas: As a professor of marketing, he could actually design a study to figure out the right answer. Together with his collaborators, he just wrote up his findings for HBR. The top takeaway: When you have to beg off an engagement, blame lack of money or even energy, but not time.

The research team came to this conclusion by sifting through Twitter conversations, polling couples about their reactions to declined wedding invitations, and asking businesspeople to imagine a colleague turning down a dinner invite. No matter which way they looked at the question, the team got the same results. People seem to be more hurt by excuses centering on time, causing lasting damage to relationships.

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It's About Priorities

Why is that? The answer seems to hinge on the idea of control. In short, people buy that you really don't have the money and not coming is a necessity, not a choice. Being honest about these constraints might even bring you closer. Lack of time, on the other hand, is perceived as just a face-saving excuse. Really, you just can't be bothered.

"It seems that because we think others should have more control over their time, we think they should be able to make time to do the things in life they really want to do. So we're more likely to distrust the excuse that they don't have time for us, and this ultimately impacts how close we feel to them," conclude the authors.

According to a lot of experts, our mistrustful friends and associates are right. Putting aside the fact that detailed time use surveys show most Americans really aren't that busy, many experts point out that "I'm too busy" really means "I don't value this enough to make time for it."

"Instead of saying 'I don't have time' try saying 'it's not a priority,' and see how that feels," suggests time-use expert Laura Vanderkam, for instance. "Try it: 'I'm not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it's not a priority.' 'I don't go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.' If these phrases don't sit well, that's the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don't like how we're spending an hour, we can choose differently."

The insights from this sort of exercise might come as a revelation to you, but Donnelly's work suggests our friends and colleagues see through our BS faster. When you say you don't have time, they hear "I don't value this." If that's not what you want to say, you're better being honest about your lack of money. Or, failing that, having a long, hard think about your priorities.

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Get more lessons from Julia Vanderkam in "Juliet's School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Jessica Stillman April 10, 2019

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